Observations on The New Panchayati Raj
Experience in Madhya Pradesh

C.N. Subramaniam

Excessive bureaucratism has characterised Indian polity and administration. The Collector-SP raj established by the British was further entrenched during the post-Independence period as it became the engine of capitalist development at the local level. Over the decade this has been effective in stifling the development of any genuine bourgeois democratic institutions and processes and consciousness at the grass-root level.

The bureaucracy strongly rooted in the upper castes and the landowning classes effectively safeguarded the interests of those castes and classes. At the same time it also had to play the role of controlling the excesses of those classes. In other words this set up prevented the local ruling elements from directly exercising power or in having a free hand.

Over the years those local interests have become more varied and complex - in fact too complex for a centralised polity to handle. The local segments of the ruling classes have been increasingly and effectively clamouring for a greater share of power and resources. At the macro level this is reflected in the emergence of regional parties and the crucial role they play in the central politics.

The nature of the local ruling elements vary from place to place. At one end of the spectrum we have tribal elites who cannot yet be classed as either feudal or capitalist. They are at best local agents of the traders and contractors. Then we have downright feudal elements, landlords living off rent - certainly a declining tribe, but present nevertheless. We are more likely to encounter a metamorphosed landowning class - which combines commercial agriculture, trading, money lending and small agro-industries. It cannot be treated as a purely capitalist class. It continues to draw power from its localised 'control of people' and resources and lacks the mobility so crucial for mature capitalism. It therefore has a crucial stake in local politics. A handful of such families between control them the economy and polity of a district. The district and state level politicians and bureaucrats usually hail from this stratum.

To an extent this stratum is being challenged by the newly emerging kulak segments who draw sustenance from prosperous commercial agriculture and small time trading and speculation. They come from the stock of middle peasant castes. This in a sense represents the commercial agriculture lobby fast transforming itself into a capitalist class. Its principal interest lies in keeping down the cost of agricultural inputs - wages, seeds, fertilisers, pesticides.., and keeping agricultural prices high, expanding irrigation, rural credit and marketing institutions. The relation of this strata with the rural proletariat and the marginal peasants is a complex one. In trying to aggrandise upon common lands, wastes, pastures and other resources upon which the rural poor depend they stand in conflict with the latter. They also provide employment and credit and in a market situation loaded against the proletariat they have a controlling position. At the same time the relation is mitigated by a traditional patron-client relationship that is the hall mark of the caste system.

Recent elections have time and again proved that the support of this emerging kulak class is essential for any political party. Such a support has to be rewarded both at the level of macro economic policies and also through active sharing of power and resources. The Panchayati Raj seeks to address the demands of this stratum while at the same time creating counter points to its power.

The first to prove the importance of Panchayati Raj for sustaining political power was West Bengal. The land reforms there had buttressed the middle and rich peasantry and the effective implementation of Panchayat system since 1984 has given these strata an access to power and resources. For the first time in India local elected bodies have become more powerful than the bureaucracy at least at the local level. This has given the Left Front its lasting electoral support which is the envy of all the other political parties of India.

The concerted efforts towards placating the middle and rich peasantry began with the twin strategy of offering reservations in government posts to them (implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations) and in making Panchayati Raj constitutionally mandatory. The credit for the former goes to the V.P. Singh government while it was Rajiv Gandhi's government which initiated the latter.

The Constitutional amendment did not simply devolve powers to the panchayats. It added a very significant provision of reserving almost one third of the seats to the Schedule Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC/STs) and women. The amendment thus at once gave more powers to the local ruling elites and aspiring elites and also sought to create a counter point to them. It seeks to set into motion autonomous political action by the hitherto marginalised groups. It should be remembered that these marginal people had participated in electoral politics as appendages of the rural power holders and upper caste landed blocs. By making them complete for crumbs at the local level with the rural elites the Act seeks to push them into a more assertive role. This counter balancing of the local elites is of strategic significance to maintain the overall balance of power in the hands of the centralised Indian State and the ruling bloc behind it.

The consequences of this double edged policy are only beginning to work out in the field and this experience merits some careful observation and study. The following points have emerged from the author's observations in western Madhya Pradesh.

1. While it was intended that the powers and functions of various government departments relating to services and development (i.e. with the exception of revenue and police departments) will be taken over by the appropriate panchayati raj institutions till today much confusion prevails over the jurisdiction and powers of the panchayats. Effectively little has been handed over to the Panchayats.

2. The newly elected Panchayat members have little experience of political functioning and administrative handling. In fact a large proportion of them are illiterate and are easily bamboozled by the bureaucrats and the local powerful.

3. The effect of the reservations has been mixed. At the outset it should be pointed out that the women or dalit members have been functioning against tremendous social prejudices and pressures. At all levels from the bureaucracy, to old power holders to the common people there is an entrenched opinion that these reservation-walas cannot handle the responsibilities heaped on them. In a substantial number of cases the candidates who have won the elections are in reality fronts for the old power holders. They have been set up by the old sarpanchs who continue to exercise real power. In case the reserved seat is for women then it is usually the wife or daughter-in-law of the old sarpanch. She is usually made to sign the papers while the husband or the father-in-law transacts all the business on her behalf. In case of reservation for the SC/STs it is the bonded labourer of the sarpanch who is made to contest the election. However in regions where the SCs have been more powerful and educated a different scenario emerges. They have fought the elections against the candidates of the old sarpanchs and won. This also includes several militant dalit women who won against high caste women. However the lack of political experience and skills has hampered the functioning of these dalit members. Their efforts are easily stonewalled and they are also trapped into financial irregularities. Thus their militancy remains ineffectual and they are sooner or later forced to demit office. A small number of the dalit and women members have the requisite experience and skills and have managed to continue in power by making compromises and adjustments with the old power blocs.

All said and done this has set into motion a process of greater political participation and skill building among the dalits and women. This has also led to the greater polarisation and mobilisation of dalits as dalits in local politics.

4. Devolution of power without prior political preparation has resulted in tremendous proliferation of corruption at the local level. The panchayat office is being seen by most of the office holders as a source of venal profit rather than as a means of ushering in change or development. In fact most of the office holders have no specific agenda and such an apolitical involvement in the political process has resulted in a clamour for 'cuts' in various expenditures and extension of patronage power. Construction of roads, digging of wells and hand pumps, building of schools, appointment of 'shiksha karmis', midday meal scheme, name any, and they are a source of graft for the sarpanch and others.

In states like Rajasthan a movement has sprung up to make public in the presence of the entire village the accounts of the panchayats and review the work done by the Panchayat. This has created some control over overt corrupt practices. To what extent this can effectively curb corruption and build a democratic accountability remains to be seen.

In conclusion one may say that the new Panchayati raj in so far as it will weaken the bureaucratic stranglehold is welcome and attempts should be made to strengthen it against the bureaucracy and state government. Likewise, it is necessary to work with the dalit members of the panchayats and build a conscious dalit intervention in the panchayat affairs. Thirdly it is essential to build a tradition of collective work and enforcing accountability within the rural community to ensure effective participation of various segments of the rural population in the affairs of the panchayat.

What will be the impact of these developments on the emerging class relations in the countryside remains an open question. It is likely to weaken the stranglehold of the uppercaste, bureaucratic control over local polity and strengthen the hold of the middle peasant castes. It at the same time opens up some possibilities for the depressed sections of the rural society to organise and confront their social superiors. To what extent this will take place remains to be seen.

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